28 November 2016

The duty to memory

by Marc Masurovsky

Which is simpler—recovery of looted cultural objects or memorializing the loss of cultural objects? The short answer is: both are fraught with complications. Let's focus for now on memory.

Remembering what was once “ours”.

When natural disasters strike communities, the survivors get together, mourn their losses, both individual and collective, give thanks for being alive, and remember what was once “theirs.” It is part of the grieving process. Shrines are erected to honor the dead, plaques are affixed to the walls of buildings where a traumatic event occurred, or steles are set up in public squares or at a crossroads, to honor and remember. These acts of remembering are the outward expression of a tacit, implicit accord that we have a duty of memory, our responsibility as an organized citizenry to pay homage, to remind ourselves that, despite events in our common pasts, anchored in mass violence and traumatic upheavals, our communities survived and, although scarred, rebuilt themselves.

Whether it be the “Holocaust,”, the mass murders and tortures in Cambodia, the fratricidal violence in countless countries, the near-total extermination of indigenous groups worldwide, there is a collective duty to remember what we, as humans, are capable of inflicting on our neighbors, our friends, our relatives, and on total strangers. The memory of our “bloodlust” serves as a reminder of what we have lost and what we have done unto others.

In the case of culture, this duty to memory takes an odd turn.


Rare are the plaques that memorialize sites of plunder.

Jeu de Paume memorial in Paris
In France, it took the government nearly a half century before it felt that it could memorialize the depredations resulting from the Nazi-led cultural plunder of France. In 2005, a plaque was nailed to the side of the Jeu de Paume museum in the Tuilerie Gardens in Paris. It immortalizes the Jeu de Paume as a storage and transit center for art looted from Jewish victims of Nazi policies in occupied France and Rose Valland’s role in documenting those thefts. The plaque itself is sober. It also cites the number of works that Rose Valland is credited with recovering on behalf of the French State—45,000 in all—. One wonders whether all of those objects transited through the Jeu de Paume or if that figure represents the totality of works of art which the French government was able to repatriate from Germany and Austria after 1945.

In 1942, the Nazi government decided that it was time to expropriate all Jewish-owned property for the benefit of Germans living inside the Reich’s borders. The enforcement of the so-called “Mobel-Aktion” all across Western Europe resulted in the emptying out of tens of thousands of residences either rented or owned by persons of Jewish descent. Their goods were sorted, the most valuable were set aside, while the rest were put on trains to German cities damaged by Allied aerial bombing raids. In German-occupied Paris, a number of sites across the beleaguered capital were used to process expropriated Jewish household goods, a task performed by Jewish inmates from the transit camp of Drancy. One of those sites was called Levitan, once a furniture store at 85-87, rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin. A plaque was erected which honors the Jewish prisoners who worked there as slave laborers.  It also reminds the reader that Jewish goods were sorted at Levitan.  A good many of those goods were art objects which were inspected by Nazi agents and later sent to the Jeu de Paume for cataloguing and shipment to art depots in the Reich or for resale on the Paris art market.
Memorial at Levitan in Paris

Similarly in Germany, there are few memorial plaques reminding the public of Nazi crimes against culture.

Kopenickerstrasse depot memorial in Berlin
In Berlin, a printed text framed inside a clear waterproof casing is nailed to a wall at the former Kopenickerstrasse depot which encapsulated the destructive power of “Aktion Entartete Kunt”. In that depot, thousands of “degenerate” works of art were stored after being confiscated from individuals, galleries and cultural institutions across Germany. A good many were destroyed while the rest were put up for sale on the international art market.

One of the rare plaques honoring the work of an ardent critic of the corruption endemic to post-WWI German society marks the residence of Georg Grosz as one who stood against militarism and who satirized through his graphic work State-sanctioned corruption. Predictably, the Nazi authorities tagged Grosz’ works as “degenerate.” By 1933, Grosz had established himself in New York as a German exile.
Georg Grosz memorial plaque in Berlin, Germany

If we view the Jeu de Paume commemorative plaque as setting a precedent for memorializing sites of plunder, shouldn’t similar plaques be established at former ERR depots in Germany and Austria where loot from across Axis-occupied Europe was amassed?

Here is a brief list of these sites:

Buxheim near Memmingen
Nikolsburg in the Czech Republic.

The ERR depots in Paris should likewise be marked with similar plaques, used for processing Jewish-owned collections and for amassing loot seized during M-Aktion.

6, place des Etats-Unis
17, place des Etats-Unis
12, rue Dumont d’Urville
26, rue Dumont d’Urville
77 Avenue de la Grande-Armée, garage Talbot—sous-sol et 1er étage
23, rue Drouot
41, quai de la Gare d’Austerlitz
43, quai de la Gare d’Austerlitz
Faubourg Saint-Martin : garage Levitan
Rue Fresnel : Garage Fresnel
104, rue de Richelieu
45, rue Labruyère

Maybe plaques should also be placed outside of the Hotel Drouot in Paris, to remind art shoppers that this was an important recycler of looted Jewish-owned property. Is that inappropriate to even suggest a public link between a leading broker of art sales and its managers’ opportunistic behavior during the German occupation of Paris?

How far does one extend the work of memory through memorials without provoking volatile reactions from the public and from the government, starting with the arrondissement, the city and the national government?

Clearly, the complexities associated with remembrance activities, especially those that leave a permanent presence such as physical memorial structures, abound. This fear of offending one part of the public and of rattling old skeletons is nothing new but it plagues the public discourse on cultural plunder during the Nazi years.

At this rate, we can go from one country to the next where acts of plunder occurred and draw up lists of sites of memory.  The list is endless, perhaps because the memory of plunder has not yet been addressed properly.

Museum labels as “memory”

Inadequate labeling can create even more frustration than the absence of labeling associated with works of art on display. Several decades ago, there was widespread indignation at how the French government described the origin of specific works of art in State-owned museums.

Since then, there have been sporadic efforts in the United States to be more upfront about the troubled past of works in permanent collections. At the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, MA, a project called “Art with a Past” invited viewers to read a text that did not exceed several hundred words on a large-size plaque next to the concerned work of art. The text detailed that the work had been plundered by the Nazis and had since been restituted to its rightful owners before entering the MFA’s collection. A unique experiment in the postwar annals of museum labeling, the “Art with a Past” project shows how a cultural institution can guide the viewing public to explore further the history of ownership of an object and serve as a reminder that history, even traumatic history, can intersect and interfere with the lives of an object’s owners.

Provenance as memory

The history of ownership of an object participates in the duty to memory. After all, museum leaders already encourage their staff to produce a particular telling of the story of the objects in their collections. But they are averse to construct a story of the object as an “object lesson” in how history and art interact and affect the destiny of works and objects of art. The decades-long feud over how provenance is researched and written goes to the core of this duty to remember traumatic events that shape and direct the paths taken by objects and their owners through the sinews of history, both in space and time.

An inability and unwillingness to write these stories constitutes a crime against memory, an appeal to institutional amnesia-"appreciate” art simply as object of worship and study. The art world’s refusal to acknowledge the complex history of art objects blindsides historical truth and cheats the viewing public of a unique chance to learn more about how objects circulate, often without their owners’ consent, as a result of turbulence in the unfolding of history. Governments should encourage cultural institutions to engage their public by using art as an opportunity to teach history. After all, what better way is there to use their tax-exempt status which is there for a reason--to educate their public?